The pleasure of a ludic classroom

This past semester I took a course called Advanced Topics in the History of Documentary. We covered a wide range of topics, theorists and genres of film-making (from Michel Foulcault & Michael Moore to Guy Maddin & Robert Lepage) and all the while being forced to consider how documentary film/media-making should or could be defined. As cranky as reading theory can make me I am typically appreciative of the insight I develop from it. I’ve always felt that I learned more from my minor in film studies about the art of film-making, for example, than I ever did from my major in film production.

What follows is a reflection paper that I chose to write for this class because it inspired much thought about the nature of learning that I so value…

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Constraints, Cruelty, and Conversation (2008), an essay by Hector Rodriguez, discusses the relationship and discrepancy between play, creativity, and constraint. He foregrounds the theories of Roger Caillois (1961) who, in his analysis, identified two modes of play: paida and ludus; the former, characterized by spontaneous, impulsive and effortless enjoyment (such as a laughing at a joke) and the later which is motivated by a challenge or goal that requires practice and patience in order to achieve a successful and satisfying experience (such as riding a bike.) In my reading of Rodriguez’s essay, I was struck by the overwhelming metaphors inherent in the text that relate to learners, education and academic institutions.  Being a proponent of experiential learning and committed to producing media, in my MFA thesis, which speaks in part to the needs of high school learners, I have observed how vital play, creativity, and challenging experiences are in motivating an individual to learn.

The concern over public education is apparent throughout much of the Western world. A great deal of concern is being placed on the lack of attention being given to students—a condition often associated with overpopulated schools, and the tired method of rote learning which is less frequently implemented today, is still problematic. Rodriguez’s observations of paida and ludus, in the context of art practices, are, in my mind, such fundamental human behaviors and needs that educational environments need to design their curriculum in accordance with this natural human condition.

If we replace the words “game” and “players” with the words“assignment” and “learners” respectively, creative endeavors in the classroom could be inspired from Rodriguez’s following remark: “…it is possible to conceive of a game whose rules do not precede-but rather arise during-the playing of the game. Players might start out with only a few basic constraints and evolve the rest of the rules through a free flowing conversation. The point is not how players here respond to the rules, but how they create the rules in the first place.” The freedom to find meaning and challenges within a class assignment would likely give learners a sense of ownership, spark interest and personal growth in projects presented to them.

Not all students, however, learn the same way. Some, for example, boast to having a photographic-memory, which, in the case of a rote-learning environment, gives them an edge—a means of conquering the system, a loophole. Rodriguez’s following remark exemplifies, metaphorically, the trouble with school assessment relying on rote-learning methodology: “The player must pass the test, not circumvent it. Those who exploit loopholes in the system are thereby betraying the spirit of the game, even if they are not technically violating the letter of its rules.” The learner who exploits the loopholes in school might get through the system easier than others but to lack an environment that challenges their ludic needs is an unfortunate circumstance that could lead to a withdrawal from academic life.

People attend school for different reasons: to learn new ideas, develop new skills, to be more employable, to satisfy family expectations, etc.; meanwhile, learners are often faced with stress and struggle in that same environment. Is this acceptable? Are learners who struggle with the system’s rules simply unfortunate? Should we accept that school is not always meant to invoke happiness? This is the paradox of our educational institutions. Learners spend the bulk of their lives in a space that divorces them from a core reflex—to “play” in a challenging way and develop the confidence and skill to reach their full potential.

I compare lack of academic fulfillment to Rodriguez’s views regarding traditional cinematic form that he rejects to a degree in favor of a cinematic approach that employs a ludic practice such as The Five Obstructions by director, Lars von Trier. This film is predicated on challenges that von Trier dictates to his friend and filmmaking-mentor JØrgen Leth, whereby Leth is told to reproduce his 1967 film The Perfect Human according to von Trier’s stringent rules. Rodriguez makes an interesting remark about the nature of The Five Obstructions when he states: “I prefer to… view the cinematic both as a ludic activity, closely connected to the study of games, and as a process of working through very serious matters pertaining to the care of the self and its relation to other people.” Rodriguez’s comparison of ludus to (the distinctively Foucauldian) “care of the self” stressed to me that ludus should be inherent in academia in order for learners to feel whole within their learning experience.

Rodriguez’s essay inspired, for me, a new way of reading the needs of learners in the public educational system that I am examining in my MFA thesis. Among the numerous metaphors I have interpreted, it has led me to consider that if ludic activity is not present in classroom learning (and perhaps a mix of paida), whereby a challenging environment compels a learner to achieve desirable goals, then, the means by which a student “gets through” may not be a reliable account of their capacity to learn.

Front page image “LEGO minifigures” source & cc license

About cayoup

Colleen Ayoup was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. She has been engaged in media creation for nearly twenty years. After attending the Dawson Institute of Photography (Montreal), she worked as a commercial photographer for several years until the craving for different creative pursuits gave way. This desire led to two subsequent degrees in Psychology/Film Studies and Film Production (B.A., B.F.A) at Concordia University in Montreal. Her short fiction films and documentary, Kings (2001), about drag-king culture in Montreal toured festivals internationally. In 2004, she joined the National Film Board of Canada where she coordinated Doc Shop, a program designed to give emerging filmmakers an opportunity to learn trade skills from industry professionals and produce a short documentary for broadcast on CBC. She also contributed to the development and creation of CitizenShift (citizenshift.org), the NFB’s first social-media website that she subsequently coordinated for five years. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Documentary Media at Ryerson University (Toronto, ON)